Monday, November 24, 2008

Here comes Black Friday! Here's what to look for...

I had hoped to crank out a buyer's guide, but there are plenty of other sites out there rounding up the data that lil' ol' me couldn't compete. Instead, I want to suggest a few toys that I have found to be ideal for kids. That's a tough claim: "ideal." Really, is there an ideal? Everyone is different, right? Well, let's look at the opposite of ideal. Toys NOT to get:
* Videogames above the recommended age level of your kids. I know it is easy to think "well, it's a game, they'll pick it up," but all too often this merely teaches a kid how to get frustrated. And unless you're willing to coach them through this (one of the big advantages of real, live sports for kids) you're going to wind up doing psychic damage to their brains. I recommend parents start renting and playtesting games for months beforehand. Seriously. You'll find even some games that are age-appropriate are still crummy games that a kid won't play. I thought "Cosmic Family" was safe for my 6 year-old, but the voices on the game are recorded so poorly that some of the instructions get garbled -- making play time VERY painful!
* Messy crafts designed for repeat play. Messy crafts are one thing. Messy crafts that pretend to have a lot of replay value are usually a scam. I grew up in love with slime-based toys. But the slime dried out, and the toys that got covered in it just got boring afterward. The worst culprit: Moon Sand. AVOID MOON SAND! It gets into everything, just like sand, but doesn't hold together as well as Play-doh. Worse, the TV ads make it look like you should combine the colors, but that winds up eventually looking like pinkish puke. Again, it is a mess and not a formable as traditional doughs... so keep clear
* Extravagant gifts! Maybe this goes without saying, but I wouldn't go spoiling your kids in the face of an uncertain economic future. Sure, those robot dinosaurs and ponies and puppies look great and kids crave 'em, but unless you really have money to burn I say avoid them. Even if they take rechargeable batteries (which some don't!), the replay value is much lower than you think. Why? Because the pre-programmed behaviors pale in comparison to a child's imagination. Like a game that's too easy, once they have discovered all the "modes" (games, or behaviors or actions, etc.) the kid gets bored with it quick. Well, until another kid comes over and gets jealous. That doesn't end well, usually.

So what are safe bets? What are toys that almost every kid out there WILL enjoy? Here's my 2-cents:
* Games for the family. I know, you have to actually PLAY with your kids once in a while. But a good tabletop game will do more for your family than an hour or two of therapy. Get a classic, learn the rules, and explain them carefully to the kids. Be patient, explain that it's all about having fun, win or lose, and enjoy yourself. I think if every family in America spent an hour or two each week sitting and playing a game with their kids we'd all be better off. While I'm tempted to include "party" videogames in this, I won't. The lights and sounds tend to make kids twitchy, and miss the fun if they lose.
* If your kids are between 5 and 10, get GeoTrax. From about 7 or 8 and up, get more LEGO's, or anything they can use to BUILD stuff. We bought GeoTrax a couple of years ago, when my son was really a little too young for them. Now he's 5, and he's making some amazing tracks. He'll spend hours playing with our 3 containers of tracks! Usually it helps to get a starter pack and see if they like it. Some kids like more free-form (like Magnetix or LEGO) and some prefer more structured, like tracks or construction sets.
* Educational toys or books. Again, this won't make you a hero to your kid, but if you sit down and play with them, it will mean more than Santa pooping on your doorstep. Build a volcano, read a book or teach them crosswords. This is not only cheaper than private school, it brings you together and creates trust in learning. Win-win!

I will note there are some creative-play Wii games out there. One we've found that is great: Boom Blox. My kids love making things. The puzzles, while challenging, are still fun and not too hard. I think Boom Blox is a great pick if you're "supposed" to get a videogame!

Close runner-up was the Alien Maker (Martian Matter) kit, but after the kids ran through the materials in a couple of weeks, it has fallen off the radar. Unlike a Play-doh set, there's not much to do after making the things. Plus, those supplies add up if your kids want to barrel through the aliens.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Nicktoons: Attack of the Toybots -- STAY AWAY!

I went to college in the 90's and my first real console was a Super NES. There were a lot of standout games on the platform, but the ease of writing for the machine also created an industry of crud. Many of these lame platformers were simply marketing vehicles: Beavis and Butthead, Rocko's Modern Life, and even 7-Up had a game (although the 7-Up game featuring the little red spot guy was actually pretty good).

Now, I'm not so puritanical to think that marketing and good games can't mix. In fact, I have a side biz making iPhone apps where we hope to make great apps that just *happen* to have a marketing message as well.

But here's a tip to intellectual property owners: the halcyon days of the 90's platformer craze are over. So don't fall into the same old "jump, run, jump, run, die and repeat ad nauseum" pattern that defined so many ill-conceived games from the 90's.

Case in point: "Nicktoons Attack of the Toybots." While the production values are great, and there are plenty of fun moments, overall the game is hampered by a huge level of frustration. For example: a good 1/3 of the game involves tedious and unnecessary jump leveling. Make one mistake at the end of a sequence and you've got to start back at the beginning of that section, doomed to drive yourself nuts. This might be fun for a bored 10 year-old with no other games on the shelf, but for me it only brought back the nightmares...

So unless you find this for a couple of dollars or you want to waste a free rental and some time (and sanity), avoid it like the plague. Pity, as the game did have a lot of potential. If the levels were designed better, I would recommend it. Unfortunately, there's just too much padding for it to be fun.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year...

When all the new toys are coming out! Yep, you Johnny-come-lately shoppers out there beware: the hottest toys this season are likely sitting on shelves now. Granted, the economy might make those toys readily available in December, but do you want to risk it?

I'll post the toys we've got our eyes on soon, but for now, here's a sample:

  • Imaginext has an entire line of superheroes (Batman and Superman for now)

  • Also in that line is Spike the Dinosaur. You might have seen the ads on TV. However, Spike isn't a more animated version of previous dinos in this line -- he's HUGE! He'll be this year's Butterscotch the Pony (remember her from last year?)

  • The newest Leapster is out and looks good.

  • Anything High School Musical

  • And all the major game publishers have a boatload of new games for you... be sure to read all the reviews, but keep in mind: gamers tend to write them. I've had good luck getting discounted games for younger kids because a bunch of snotty core gamers hated the repetitive nature of the gameplay. But kids love the fact that they can master something so quickly! Like old arcade games, your mileage may vary.

Back soon with more holiday shopping tips!

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Why the Mario Kart Wii shortages?

When Mario Kart Wii came out we were going on vacation and couldn't afford to grab a copy. Bad move! Just like the Wii itself, the game has been tough to find after the initial release. I'm not sure why-- it's just a disc and a wheel. Before the Wii we had trouble buying the Mario DDR game, and we heard it was because of quality control issues. I applaud Nintendo's efforts, but the Kart shortages don't make sense.

So the other day I was delighted to find my wife happened upon a nice lady at Target who said she had just opened a box of games and there was ONE copy of Kart inside. Just one? What in the world?

Anyway, once I took a look at the wheel it made a little more sense. The wheel isn't like the Monster 4x4 wheel (from Ubisoft), which is just a plastic shell. The Kart wheel has a better gripping system (the 4x4 wheel tends to gunk up the IR transmitter). The Kart wheel also has a hole for the IR transmitter, plus a special button to activate the B-button on the underside of the remote. That has a purpose in the game, but I'll cover that later in a more in-depth review.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

How a board game is made

Neat and very detailed development blog of VIKTORY, a board game partly inspired by one of my favorites: Axis and Allies. Fascinating to see the iterative process of designing and building a game system.

Friday, June 27, 2008

McDonald's toy looks like Devo's trademark hats, here come the lawyers

Those American Idol toys McD's gave away for a while have caught the eye of Devo. Check out pic on Pitchfork to see why bassist Gerald Castle is suing for trademark infringement.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Review: High School Musical Sing It! for Nintendo Wii

This is going to be a quick review as we've only played the game a few times. The real info comes in what I heard when the wife tried to start playing... You see, our daughter got High School Musical Sing It! for the Wii on her birthday (oh, yeah, we got a Wii over the holidays, yay!). She's a big fan of HSM, and a kindergartner, so we figured this would be a good match.

Sadly, the game makes having fun far too difficult. One of the best things about the Wii is the intuitive menu system. This sounds esoteric, but a complex device like a modern game machine actually requires finesse to make things "just work" without the usual screaming and frustration you'd find on your average PC. So when you go to do something, you find that it is really pretty easy to do, or it is obvious as to *what* you should do.

But HSM Sing It! completely drops the ball. I don't know if the geniuses at Disney Interactive were just lazy or mad or what, but I haven't seen an interface this frustrating since Windows ME. For example, we still can't figure out how to sing as a girl, so for a LONG time you'll have to sing as Troy. Because clearly 10-year-old boys are the target audience (!?!?!). And when you're in story mode, you'll be there for the forseeable future, as every time you try to bolt out of it, the game warns you: "ALL YOUR DATA WILL NOT BE SAVED." That's just bad game design-- let me save when I'm done with a song! In fact, the stuff you unlock is saved, but your progress isn't saved, which means you'll be singing the same several songs over and over and over again until the game decides it will smile upon you and finally save your data. Totally lame.

Worse still, the absolute basics are convoluted. We wound up naming our character "A" because that's all it would let us do. Menuing back and forth is like the world's most confusing corn maze. The gameplay is good, but not great, and you'll be wishing for a more complete playlist sooner than you think (would it have been so hard to include a couple of other Disney songs?).

Unless you're willing to slog through menus that make no sense, settings that don't stick and a very unforgiving save mechanism, this is really only for the hard-core HSM fan. Luckily my daughter IS such a creature, and thus far hasn't been completely disillusioned by the crappy game scheme outside the gameplay itself.